Loi Krathong (Thai: ลอยกระทง, IPA: [lɔːj kràʔ tʰoŋ]) is a festival celebrated annually throughout Thailand and certain parts of Laos and Burma (in Shan State). The name could be translated as “to float a basket”, and comes from the tradition of making krathong or buoyant, decorated baskets, which are then floated on a river.
Loi Krathong takes place on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar. In the western calendar this usually falls in November.
According to the Royal Institute Dictionary 1999, loi (ลอย) means ‘to float’, while krathong (กระทง) has various meanings, one of which is “a basket to be floated on water in the Loi Krathong festival”. Several translations of krathong are found, such as floating crown, floating boat, floating decoration. The traditional krathong are made from a slice of the trunk of a banana tree or a spider lily plant. Modern krathongs are more often made of bread or styrofoam. A bread krathong will disintegrate after a few days and can be eaten by fish. Banana stalk krathong are also biodegradable, but styrofoam krathongs are sometimes banned, as they pollute the rivers and may take years to decompose. A krathong is decorated with elaborately-folded banana leaves, incense sticks, and a candle. A small coin is sometimes included as an offering to the river spirits.
On the night of the full moon, Thais launch their krathong on a river, canal or a pond, making a wish as they do so. The festival may originate from an ancient ritual paying respect to the water spirits.
Government offices, corporations and other organizations bring large decorated krathongs. There are competitions for the best such krathong. A beauty contest is a regular feature and fireworks have become common in recent years.
Loi Krathong is often claimed to have begun in the Sukhothai by a court lady named Nopphamat. However, it is now known that the Nopphamat tale comes from a poem written in the early Bangkok period. According to H.M. King Rama IV, writing in 1863, it was a Brahmanical festival that adapted by Thai Buddhists in Thailand to honor Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama. The candle venerates the Buddha with light, while the krathong’s floating symbolizes letting go of all one’s hatred, anger, and defilements. People sometime cut their fingernails or hair and placed the clippings on the krathong as a symbol of letting go of negative thoughts. However, many ordinary Thai use the krathong to thank the Goddess of Water, Phra Mae Khongkha (Thai: พระแม่คงคา).
The beauty contests that accompany the festival are known as “Nopphamat Queen Contests”. According to legend, Nang Nopphamat (Thai: นางนพมาศ; alternatively spelled as “Noppamas” or “Nopamas”) was a consort of the Sukothai king Loethai (14th century) and she had been the first to float a decorated raft. However, this is a new story which was invented during the first part of the 19th century. There is no evidence that a Nang Nopphamat ever existed. Instead, it is a matter of fact that a woman of this name was the leading character of a novel released during the end of the reign of King Rama III – around 1850 CE. Her character was written as guidance for all women who wished to become civil servants.
Kelantan in Malaysia also celebrates the same celebration, especially in the Tumpat area. The ministry in charge of tourism in Malaysia recognises it as an attraction for tourists. Many people visit the celebration each year.
Loi Krathong coincides with the Lanna (northern Thai) festival known as “Yi Peng” (Thai: ยี่เป็ง). Yi means two and peng means a full moon day. Yi Peng refers to the full moon day in the second month according to the Lanna lunar calendar (the twelfth month according to the Thai lunar calendar).
A multitude of Lanna-style sky lanterns (khom loi (Thai: โคมลอย), literally: “floating lanterns”) are launched into the air where they resemble large flocks of giant fluorescent jellyfish gracefully floating by through the sky. The festival is meant as a time for tham bun (Thai: ทำบุญ), to make merit. People usually make khom loi from a thin fabric, such as rice paper, to which a candle or fuel cell is attached. When the fuel cell is lit, the resulting hot air which is trapped inside the lantern creates enough lift for the khom loi to float up into the sky. In addition, people will also decorate their houses, gardens and temples with khom fai (Thai: โคมไฟ): intricately shaped paper lanterns which take on different forms. Khom thue (Thai: โคมถือ) are lanterns which are carried around hanging from a stick, khom khwaen (Thai: โคมแขวน) are the hanging lanterns, and khom pariwat (Thai: โคมปริวรรต) which are placed at temples and which revolve due to the heat of the candle inside. The most elaborate Yi Peng celebrations can be seen in Chiang Mai, the ancient capital of the former Lanna kingdom, where now both Loi Krathong and Yi Peng are celebrated at the same time resulting in lights floating on the waters, lights hanging from trees/buildings or standing on walls, and lights floating by in the sky. The tradition of Yi Peng was also adopted by certain parts of Laos during the 16th century.
IMPORTANT NOTE: So many websites on internet has confusion with Yi Peng / Yee Peng Festival with Mae Jo Fesitval. They are two different festivals and you can see more at here: Mass Sky Lantern Release at Mae Jo, Chiang Mai